‘Turkey: Challenges Facing Christians, 2016-2020’: in-depth analysis of persecution Christians in Turkey face

December 8, 2020

Persecution of Christians in Turkey: this important new report, the introduction of which is presented below, details the full and shocking extent of the plight of Christians in the Republic of Turkey, the home of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the historical site of one of the most important centers of Christianity. The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, calls upon the Turkish government to act swiftly and decisively to protect the nation’s Greek Orthodox community and the other Christians and non-Muslims of the land, and to repudiate the contempt for the Christian community of Asia Minor that we see manifested in numerous ways, such as the conversion of ancient churches, including Hagia Sophia and the Monastery of Chora, to mosques. This contempt is also manifested in the ongoing denial of property rights and legal identity to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

This report confirms and further documents the information contained in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2018 Annual Report, which again included Turkey among its Tier 2 violators — that is, countries where religious freedom violations are systematic, ongoing, and/or egregious.

The Order reiterates our hope that the international human rights community will direct its attention to the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of all Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey, and that the Turkish government will heed the repeated calls to grant full religious freedom to its embattled Christian minority.

For previous coverage of the persecution of Christians in Turkey, see here.

“Turkey: Challenges Facing Christians, 2016-2020,” Middle East Concern/International Christian Concern, December 7, 2020:

INTRODUCTION Throughout its history, Turkey has sought to maintain a stature of leadership, a role which includes a responsibility to uphold and promote human rights. However, a framework exists which promotes historical revisionism and represses the legal identities of non-Muslims.

For Christians in Turkey, most religious freedom issues stem from this framework, and they currently stand at a critical juncture. These challenges compound as Turkey swings upon the political fulcrum of Kemalism or Islamism. For this reason, addressing the core framework is key for the sincere and long-term promotion of religious freedom. This report provides case study analysis on how the current framework impacts Christian communities and provides recommendations for respectfully opening a problem-solving dialogue.

Human Rights Watch in its 2020 World Report commented, “Turkey has been experiencing a deepening human rights crisis over the past four years with a dramatic erosion of its rule of law and democracy frame- work.” This breakdown of democratic values and failure to consistently uphold human rights has led to significant social strain. For Christians, who have a strong allegiance to their homeland, this strain is deeply impactful. Christians are prevented from fully living their faith, and instead are imprisoned behind murky legalism and a culture that attempts to silence their voice and negate their influence in broader Turkish society.

The early Christian Church was born in ancient lands today known as the Republic of Turkey. Formerly these lands were part of the Byzantine Empire, which was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church and an important center of Christianity until the invasion of Turks from Central Asia. The subsequent Ottoman Empire was sustained by Islam, rapidly reaching Asia Minor, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Christians and Jews had a second-class status. As “people of the book,”1 they were accorded a degree of protection but had less rights and privileges than Muslims. However, systematic massacres of Armenians began in the 1890’s under the autocratic rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II after Armenians demanded the implementation of reforms agreed to at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

The Ottoman Empire’s demise coincided with a desire for reform and rising Turkish nationalism through the ‘Young Turks’ movement and the establishment of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Non-Mus- lims were initially part of this reformist movement, but they came to be seen as an internal security threat and were frequently blamed for economic woes and military failures. This blame eventually culminated in a genocide that left over two million Christians dead, mostly Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. Survivors faced forced conversion and Turkification, displacement, or deportation.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the Turkish army in a war of in- dependence, resulting in the 1923 establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey. As part of this establishment, Turkey and Greece agreed to a compulsory population exchange. More than a million Christians from Turkey were resettled in Greece, and nearly half a million Muslims from Greece resettled in Turkey.

The same year, the Lausanne Treaty was signed. Articles 37-43 of the treaty stipulate the rights of non-Muslims, but the subsequent Turkish legal system lacks implementing regulations and has failed to grant them adequate legal status. This is a severe handicap that remains today. Additionally, the recognition granted to Christian communities by the treaty is generally interpreted by Turkey to only apply to non-Muslim com- munities who were recognized in the former Ottoman Empire, including Jews, Greeks, Armenians and, to some extent, Assyrian Christians. Excluded Christian groups include Latin-rite Catholics, and Protestants.

Kemalism was born during this period and introduced sweeping reforms that replaced Turkey’s Ottoman Islamic history with a modern, secular nation with limited public display of religion. In a major reform the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet. This made Ottoman history less accessible and distanced the new republic from past atrocities. It allowed for the development of a new national narrative of the Republic of Turkey. However, this narrative excluded ethnic and religious minorities: Turkey was the country of the Turks. The Kemalist slogan “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk” (Turkish: Ne mutlu Türküm diyene) continues alienating Turkish citizens who are not ethnically Turkish.

Turkey evolved into one of the most stable and developed countries within the Middle East region. The country joined NATO and petitioned for membership within the European Union. Turkey’s own domestic political history often swung between the extremes of Kemalist secularism and Ottoman-styled Islamism.

Today, Turkey’s beleaguered Christian community numbers approximately 160,000 (including different Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant communities), less than 0.2% of the total population. The Church is no longer bound by ethnicity, and now includes several thousand adherents who are ethnically Turkish (converts from Islam to Christianity). These converts are permitted under Turkish secular law but may be targeted by extremists as “apostates” from Islam and proselytizers of the Christian faith, whether actively so or through the precedent of their conversion.

Both the competing narratives of Kemalism and Islamism underpin a framework which leads to the repression of religious freedom for religious minorities. Unless this framework is reformed, religious freedom abuses will perpetuate regardless of political leadership. These problems have become more visible following the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who responded by accelerating the implementation of an Islamic-nationalist agenda. This agenda appealed to both the religious and the Turkish nationalist sections of society, but increasingly isolated more moderate and democratic voices.

TURKEY: Challenges Facing Christians 2016-2020 reviews the period between 2016 – 2020. It analyzes how the dynamics of historical revisionism and legal status have impacted Turkey’s Christian community, as well as those living in neighboring regional areas under Turkish influence. The report is not a comprehensive catalogue of violations against Christians, but through relevant case-studies found the following themes of religious freedom abuses:

• Emphasis on forming and maintaining the Turkish identity around Islam

  • Suppression of legal status for Christians and their institutions

  • Historical revisionism as a type of virtue signaling

  • Excluding Christians from full acceptance and participation in Turkish society

  • Neglecting the place of Christians in the lands, their history, heritage and suffering

  • Using intimidation tactics to suppress the cultural and ethnic expression of Christians

  • No active promotion of human rights

  • Exploitation of the vulnerabilities of Christians

  • Abuse of Christians as an international bargaining chip and domestic political leverage

    The institutionalized use of religious freedom as a political bargaining chip should prompt caution amongst human rights advocates. Another point of caution is the cultural perception within Turkey of how these issues are discussed within the international community. As in most Middle Eastern cultures, the concepts of honor and shame play an important role within Turkish society.

    Through this report, it is our earnest desire to encourage an open dialogue between the international community and Turkey, aimed at restoring trust and relationship. We hope a transparent dialogue will contribute to policies which recognize, uphold, protect, and promote the rights of Christians living in Turkey. It is through these small yet important steps of honoring the other that true reforms can ultimately be brought about.